Books, Culture — August 17, 2012 11:26 am

Holden Caulfield: The Original Teenage Dirtbag

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It will probably come as no surprise that I was one of those kids who read, and finished, every book assigned to me in high school. It’s not as if I actually enjoyed them all; I was just…dutiful. Dutiful to the tune of almost straight A’s (I’m lookin’ at you, AP US History) which got me into a well-regarded and very spendy college, which now has me paying 20% of my income to the government and various other lending organizations for the rest of my life. So, congratulations slackers. You win.

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From what I heard, the boys in particular were always not finishing books. I’m not being sexist here–that’s what they told me. Except Catcher in the Rye. For some reason, any young man I found bragging about all of the books he didn’t read in high school always ended up qualifying his anti-literacy victory with, “except Catcher in the Rye.” Something about the young angsty male griping about the “phony”-ness of the system just really resonated, I guess.

But those were guys my age, who went to high school around the same time that I did. Nowadays, I don’t think they hardly even assign Catcher anymore. I know we don’t in the school at which I work. And, I recently read this article for a class about how today’s students, when they do have to read about him, find Holden Caulfield to be little more than a whiny, spoiled brat.

What gives? How did Catcher go from the epitomical expression of a society’s youth–and the only book non-reading students are even willing to crack–to an anachronistic, irrelevant artifact of the old school? In the interest of pure intellectual curiosity preparing for school, I decided was told to read it again, and here is what I found:

Catcher is a good book, but not for the reasons that were once treasured by ennui-touting teenagers. Salinger, I believe, was not celebrating the wild discontent that rears its head in all of us when we find ourselves in moments of in-between, and disconnect. He was not telling teenage boys to run away. Nor was he being entirely critical, of course. Rereading the book as an adult, Holden does turn out to be more annoying–certainly more hypocritical–than you probably remembered; but then, he is also quite genuinely misunderstood by those on whom he is dependent for stability and direction.

For all of his frustrations, Holden is a kid just trying to make it through. He has an idea of what is right and wrong, but he doesn’t yet have the wherewithal to hold to it himself, and so he is deeply disappointed when the adults around him prove incapable of modeling what he considers to be a worthwhile lifestyle.  We’ve all been there.

So what’s the difference today, as opposed to fifty or even just fifteen years ago? Is Holden irrelevant? Yes and no. His experience at a fundamental, biological level is still applicable–you know, the hormones and the existential confusion and all that. But the difference, as far as I can tell, is the surrounding culture. Holden exists–and Salinger was writing–in a time when “teenagers” were relatively new. Adolescents were not necessarily being asked to grow up, get a job (or go to war), and start life, as it were. Yet–and this is where the whining comes in, I think–they weren’t being given any other options.

At the time of the novel’s publication–1951, to be exact–youth culture as we know it today had not yet been formed. Marketers, in all of their cunning, had not yet taken full advantage of the demographic with the most free time and the most spending money available. Today, kids Holden’s age have things to entertain them–they have a world of their own. Holden had nowhere, and nobody. Today, students escape into virtual worlds via i-Products, or they take their medicine. Holden had no such tools of placation at his disposal.

Given all that, I suppose the challenge of teaching Catcher–or the challenge of reading it for fun if you’re inclined to give it a go–is building a bridge for the reader from the text to meaning. The datedness of many of the book’s references and Holden’s slang can make it a long gap to span, but I do think it’s worth it. Catcher in the Rye, while not Salinger’s best work (that would be Franny and Zooey), is a fascinating, incredibly prescient portrait of the genesis of contemporary  teenager-dom. Read it as a grown-up, if you haven’t already, and open your heart to Holden’s pain. See how this little book shifted everything.

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  • This was very insightful, thank you! You totally brought to my attention something I’ve never really thought about: the virtual non-existence of the social class ‘teenager’ or ‘adolescent’ back in the day. And it makes perfect sense. Fifty, sixty years ago (who knows how much further back?), that social class had adulthood thrust upon them. It is for this reason that I think ‘CITR’ is very relevant today. The ‘in-between time’ (as you call it), the phenomena of ‘arrested development’ more alive than ever today. But I can only speak of one person’s experience with absolute certainty: my own. I remember my early college years as a prolonged period of ‘faking it’ for social approval, and the inevitable despairing aftershock that would hit me when the night was over. I can’t even remember how many times sobbing overtook me as I had to admit that I hadn’t an ounce of authenticity, no individuality, no sense of self-worth. And with my tendency for self-projection, I came to see everything and everyone as I saw myself. Everyone was suspect, which made me an island. The one breadcrumb of real authenticity I encountered was one night alone (as usual) reading the beginning paragraph of CITR. Even if the cynicism oozed through the pages, I felt like was a reading about a real person, not someone trying to be someone else. Yes, I really did carry the book with me everywhere I went, reading it so much my grades suffered. I have yet to read it again as a more mature adult, so I’m anxious to know what the book is like from that unique perspective.

    • Thanks for sharing, Matt (I’m assuming that’s your name). I really appreciate what you said here, and I think Salinger, recluse as he was, would be moved to know that his story had such an impact.

      I definitely encourage you to re-read the book and see how your relationship with Holden, who of course has not aged, is different now that you’ve grown. This is the beauty of a good story–that it exists like a sun around which we orbit, and as we pass through time it illuminates different parts of our selves, often when we need it most.

  • I think I enjoy your articles the most, btw. You’re a very good writer. I’m a lover of literature, like yourself, even though you’re probably more widely read. Keep it up! lol

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